Patton v. United States
Clarified the circumstances under which a defendant may waive the right to a trial.
An accused person's right to a trial by jury predates the Constitution, with deep roots in American and English common law. Sometimes, however, defendants might agree to waive that right, or to accept a jury with fewer than 12 members. That is what John Patton, Harold Conant, and Jack Butler did, and when they later changed their minds, the Supreme Court upheld a right the men wished they had not exercised.
During the days of Prohibition, the three men were involved in bootlegging alcohol. After conspiring to bribe a federal Prohibition agent, Patton and his associates were arrested and tried in an Oklahoma Federal District Court. The three defendants pleaded not guilty. The trial began on 19 October 1927 with 12 jurors. A week later, however, one juror fell seriously ill and could no longer serve on the panel. Patton, Conant, and Butler, along with their attorneys, agreed to let the trial continue with just 11 jurors. The government and the trial judge also agreed. The next day the jury found the defendants guilty.
Patton and the other men then appealed their conviction to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming they had no power to waive their right to a jury trial with fewer than 12 jurors. The circuit court, not sure how to decide the case, asked the Supreme Court for instruction.